When Lani Holmberg travelled to Africa in 2012 to photograph female farmers living in remote, drought-affected areas, she’d expected to see the worst: women and children suffering from famine and extreme hardship.
And the Melbourne-based photographer admits the thought of this – and the fact it was her first proper gig – had made her nervous.
“I was actually really sh*tting myself,” the 31-year-old says, laughing. “But I realised I had a stereotype in my head. It was nothing like that on the ground. Just very warm and welcoming people who wanted to tell their story and loved the idea of someone in Australia knowing about their life.”
Travelling to Kenya and Zimbabwe to meet local farmers participating in programs run by AFAP Action on Poverty and ActionAid Laní’s goal was to tell their stories.
Before joining the program many of the farmers, particularly women, had been trapped in poverty often without food and were forced to rely on aid or charity to survive. In an empowering shift, the food they grow now feeds their families and, in some cases, their wider communities.
Though food security remains an issue in these regions and she did witness extreme poverty, after one or two years in the program, Lani says the women were motivated and proud, especially knowing “what it felt like to give their kids something they’d grown”.
As a visual storyteller, this was what Lani chose to capture – not just harrowing images of famine but the pride that comes from regaining control and independence.
“Presenting more than one story is really important,” she says, “because that’s the only way you get past the stereotype.”
When she photographed the women on their farms, often green oases in the middle of an arid landscape, Lani asked her subjects to imagine how they felt about their futures. Many responded by eyeballing the camera.
“They’re not smiling, pretending to be happy. They’re saying, ‘I’m here and I’m okay. Yeah, we need some support, but we’re not devastated.’”
The result is a powerful collection of portraits that celebrates resilience and strength. Lani believes that when someone sees past the stereotype of an anonymous subject living in poverty to the person underneath, it often moves people to action.
“With sympathy, it’s very easy to disconnect from the person,” she explains. “But when you have a moral or human connection with someone, it’s very difficult to turn away and not think about how you would feel in that same situation.
“You can’t feel pity for someone when they look like they’re proud of what they’re doing,” says Lani. “Pride is an antidote for pity.”
Susan and her husband, a nomadic pastoralist, were forced to rely on food handouts to feed their large family after drought killed their herd of cows in Isiolo, Kenya. Now, armed with the right knowledge and tools, Susan grows enough spinach on her land to feed her family and sell at the market. Lani saw beneath her shyness a quiet confidence and dignity in being able to provide for her family.
Talkative, inquisitive and cheeky, Margaret is the leader of a group of women who come together from different communities in Mwingi, Kenya, to sell legumes at the market. Margaret quizzed Lani about farming practices in Australia and wanted to know if women worked as hard as they did, hinting that she suspected they didn’t. Lani wanted to capture Margaret’s playfulness, as a reminder that poverty is a situation, not a character trait.
So determined is this group of women in Makima, Kenya, they call themselves Ndikomaa, meaning ‘I don’t sleep’. Attending an open-air ‘farmer field school’, they learn drought-resistant farming techniques where they also sing and dance as a way to motivate each other to achieve their goal of self-sufficiency.
“By representing them as strong women, it’s not to say they’re not going through hardship,” says Lani. “It’s more about balancing the other media you see about people in Africa. There is something to be proud about and there are people who have pride and strength and resilience.”
Jemima welcomed Lani and her team early in the morning with tea and a dense millet cake. She’d prepared for her visitors by sweeping the ground around her home in Mwingi, Kenya, setting out a table and chairs in the shade, dressing in her best clothes and moisturising her skin with oil. Home, fashion, and family-proud, Jemima is working to profit enough from her crops so that she can afford to send her two young daughters to school.
When Lani met Veronica on her last day in Kenya in Mwingi, Kenya, she was digging small conservation pits that would collect water when the rains came, eventually turning the land into nutrient-rich soil. She had already dug 70 pits and was determined to dig another 200 within the next month. As red plumes of dirt gathered in the air around Veronica, Lani captured her without pity, but rather as a strong female, someone to be admired.
Photography: Lani Holmberg